Journey of an Indian woman diplomat: A story of struggle, success and empowerment

The Indian Foreign Service has come a long way in changing gender stereotypes. In the early years, women diplomats were forced to resign if they got married, writes Amb Bhaswati Mukherjee (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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In 1977, the UN General Assembly called on all member states to celebrate a historic journey every year on March 8 by commemorating International Women’s Day. It is a special day for women worldwide.  

E.H. Carr in ‘What is History’ had stated: “Facts speak only when the historians call on them to speak……. in a sense, a fact is and cannot be more sacrosanct than a perception.” 

Women’s position in India

The perception internationally is that the position of India’s woman does not do credit to its history, culture, civilization, and democratic liberal norms.  Is this true?  Is this fair? How does one change this perception?  This calls for deep reflection.  In this journey women have to take the nation with them. Complete victory is only possible when society changes and that change percolates to the lowest levels in rural India. 

To trace the long and difficult journey of the Indian woman to this century, to ascertain whether there has been a positive change in her status or not, is a daunting challenge. In India, statistics demonstrate that inequality prevails everywhere, particularly in rural India. Change is most noticeable in urban areas. The 21st century educated Indian woman in our highly urbanized city centers is very different from her sisters in the village, particularly in rural North India.  

Yet, change has also come to these conservative bastions, change which has brought with it social upheaval, inter-caste feuding, and economic upward mobility for some sections of the underprivileged, including women. 

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Violence against women

This change has also brought with it a new and ugly phenomenon particularly in our city center’s of violence against women, violence which is ugly and which questions the basis of our norms of civilization and culture.  

We all know of the atrocious Nirbhaya gang rape.  I was Ambassador of India to the Netherlands when this terrible tragedy occurred. With the approval of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), I opened a condolence book in the embassy so that the Dutch and the embassy, including myself, could grieve together.  I explained to my Dutch friends that this was an aberration in Indian society which can and do occur elsewhere too. 

To trace the journey of Indian women we must go back into our history.  When did the decline begin?  The equal status of women in our society, it has been pointed out by many historians, is part of our civilizational norms, our culture, and our history. Many parts of India including Kerala and Assam, still enjoy matriarchal systems.  In the Rig Vedic period, women enjoyed equal status with men.  

From the 10th century onwards, India saw a series of invasions across the Khyber Pass, bringing a new culture and social norms which India, as a true melting pot of civilizations, absorbed, assessed, assimilated, or rejected.  As a result, the purdah for Muslims and the ghunghat (veil) for Hindus became institutionalised and marked a retrograde step backward for women cutting across religion and society.  It resulted in women being socially excluded and being discriminated against in education, and in health care. The decline had commenced.   

Under colonial rule, a reformist movement of great significance for women started in Bengal and gradually spread throughout India. Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his followers introduced important changes including attempts to abolish sati, polygamy, and child marriage, and encouraged widow remarriage.  Efforts were made to give back property and inheritance rights for women. Women’s education was encouraged.  Subsequently, women played an important part in India's burgeoning independence movement. 

Things changed rapidly with Mahatma Gandhi and the rise of our national movement.  Gandhiji upheld the equality of women and insisted that they should become part of the national movement.  He saw the veil as a retrograde effort to push women back and deprive them of their equal status. He supported women’s education, widow re-marriage and tried to change the conservative social norms of that time.   

Gandhiji had stated: “Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacities. She has the right to participate, in the minutest details in the activities of man, and she has an equal right of freedom and liberty with him.”

His efforts came to fruition when India’s constitution was adopted by the constituent assembly on January 26, 1950. These rights were enshrined as fundamental rights and guaranteed to all Indian women. 

The British left India as a very poor and socially underdeveloped nation with appalling literacy figures.  This rendered a more difficult and time-consuming process of social revolution. In the implementation of these rights came many obstacles and roadblocks arising out of poverty, underdevelopment, and conservative social values in significant segments of our population.   

The problems of empowerment of the Indian women were very complex. In education, there was initial strong resistance to co-education in some parts of India, traditionally male bastions and socially conservative. There was a shortage of women teachers and an absence of toilets for girls in schools.  In homes where the mother was not educated, ignorance prevailed about the need to educate the girl-child, i.e. of the value of education.  The famous Telugu poet who had announced in the fifties, “Educating a girl child is like watering a plant in a neighbour’s garden” symbolized the mindset of the time.

Struggle for emancipation

Then a new phenomenon started of institutionalized violence against women. In India, it was a relatively modern phenomenon. It has been endemic in the west ever since women started the struggle for emancipation.  It is often forgotten that the struggle for universal suffrage in the west was a long and sometimes violent process similar to the abolition of slavery. Throughout history, violent assaults on women and rape were considered by men to be a legitimate tactic of war to humiliate the enemy and to protect one’s own. It is the most effective form of intimidation.

With improvement of indicators of social and economic development and rising expectations from an upwardly mobile newly created  lower middle class, there was a mass movement of unemployed rural youth to sophisticated urbanised city centers.  What happened when rural India, which was mainly agricultural, conservative and under-developed came to urban India which was progressive, socially emancipated, and forward-looking?  In the clash of these two, India’s institutionalised violence against women, resulting often in rape, started increasing at an alarming rate.  

Since our judicial process was regarded as complex and time-consuming, bystanders and witnesses often preferred to turn away and move on, rather than give assistance or stop such acts.  As a result, our cities became increasingly unsafe and women were increasingly subjected to public pressure from conservatives and sometimes family members restricted their social freedom, dress, etc for the sake of personal safety. This had been firmly rejected by most professional working woman who has struggled so hard to achieve those rights guaranteed to her by India’s constitution.  

Women in foreign service

As a professional diplomat with 38 years in the Indian Foreign Service, one is often questioned about one’s own journey as well as the situation regarding women’s equality in the Foreign Service. 

The Indian Foreign Service has come a long way in changing gender stereotypes.  In the early years, women diplomats were forced to resign if they got married. Two promising women diplomats, including Rama Mehta, the wife of late Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta, had to resign due to this bizarre rule, which had to be challenged in court before it was overturned.  Similarly, when one joined the service in 1976, a single officer would get half the foreign allowance of their married colleagues. In those days, it was difficult for women to get married and to remain married because of the challenges posed by long separations and refusals of male spouses to travel with their wives leaving their career behind, as women spouses were expected to do. These problems still exist but support systems have improved.

The journey of women in our service began with C.B. Muthamma who joined in 1949.  She had to go to court many times, once to get a foreign posting and then to get her legitimate promotion to secretary level in the Foreign Service. She had documented that the justification given for no foreign posting was that she may have to go to the airport at night on duty!  

It was a long wait for three women Foreign Secretaries and two Foreign Service women ambassadors to Washington. Other glass barriers were broken too. We have Ruchira Kamboj, currently Indian ambassador to Bhutan, who was India’s first woman Chief of Protocol.  I was the first woman Head of Administration and Personnel (JS [AD]) in 1998 which had been a male bastion as well as Joint Secretary (Europe West) - which had always had a male officer. 

Women were posted to the Middle East and to war-torn countries such as Libya, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Both my colleagues in Libya and Lebanon stayed with the Indian communities under extremely trying conditions of war and bombings and did not desert their posts. Their roles have been acknowledged by the government. Another woman colleague was Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul under very difficult circumstances. 

Beno Zephine at 25 made history when she became India's first 100 percent visually challenged person to be inducted into Foreign Service. She remains upbeat and confident about her future in the service. 

There are some barriers still to be broken.  Till today, no woman has been posted as our Permanent Representative in New York.  I am confident that these barriers will also fall.

Personal journey and challenges

My own journey was one of confronting challenges head-on. I post-graduated in June 1975, joined St. Stephen’s college as a lecturer in July 1975, gave the civil service exam without informing the Principal of St. Stephens College (was afraid of being sacked), and was called for the interview in March 1976.  Since 32,000 people gave the exam with me, I was sure I would not qualify. Destiny however had other plans for me. 

For me, empowerment began in childhood. Growing up, going to college or then in the Foreign Service, I was always treated as an equal. There were isolated incidents of “eve-teasing” when I was in college but they were not vicious as they are now. 

In the Foreign Service, the challenge in those days was the need to constantly prove that you deserve the equal treatment you are getting: i.e. no concessions, no excuses, no flexibility in one’s schedule, etc.  No such burden is imposed on one’s male colleague.  If he is alone and drinking secretly, he is excused.  If he is incompetent, he is given the necessary guidance and suggestions to improve.  When one was younger, one resented this inherent discrimination, born of the need to continuously demonstrate that you are just like a male officer. 

I always rejected the efforts of my colleagues to call me a “brother officer,” noting I am neither anybody’s brother nor sister. I am a colleague and deserve the same treatment.  This imposes a huge burden when one is young, in a stressful job, and married. When I was in Permanent Mission of India (PMI), New York, I had to face this situation and I did – head-on.  The situation becomes more challenging when you have small, demanding children and an equally demanding boss who in a stressful moment will say, “As a woman, you decided to enter a man’s world.  It is your fault and your choice.”  

One learns to compromise. The compromise usually, for those of us who are highly ambitious and wish to succeed is at the expense of the family.  It frequently results in the breakdown of family relationships. 

There is no single role model for an empowered woman. Growing up in the ’60s and joining Foreign Service in 1976 with no family member has ever been in the Foreign Service to give guidance was like falling off a precipice. One day I was a family person and then suddenly on November 28, 1978, I was on this Air India plane to Paris via Rome with two tin trunks of clothes and books and 20 US dollars in my pocket to face my new life alone in an apartment in Paris and in a world where there were no mobile phones, no computers, no fax machines and no easy form of communications. I was cut off from my beloved father who wrote to me once a week by diplomatic bag.  

I learned how to drive in the busy streets of Paris on my own, to park my car between two cars as the French do, to speak French as the French do but exactly like them.  It was a difficult transformation.  But I did it, though sometimes I wasn’t sure I could do it. 

Role model for family

Indian society sometimes regarded us with suspicion because we were so different.  It is only much later when social values had changed in India that I become, to my own surprise, a role model for my family, for my relatives, for the children of my friends.  I found it quite amazing. I realized that it was important to sensitize those who admired my success that behind every successful and empowered woman, there is a story and that story is the price the woman pays for the success.     

Sylvia Plath, the famous British ‘Poet Royale’ who tragically committed suicide when challenges facing professional women of her day became too much for her had said in the “Bell Jar” in 1963: “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree…

One fig was a husband and a happy home and the children, and another fig was a famous poet…..I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest………”

The above truly symbolizes the choice between the domestic idyll and a professional career as the unique dilemma of women even today. 

My story ends here. It is a story of my own empowerment.  That story is different for every woman. But unfortunately, sometimes a price has to be paid – one day or the other. It happened to me too.

All professional women, I am sure, have different or similar stories to narrate.  In our quest for equality and equal rights, we sometimes have to either compromise or pay the consequences. 

The journey continues. It is a dynamic process but the status quo has changed.  The process of implementation of fundamental rights and subsequent parliamentary legislation has had a definitive impact. The nation is changing and there is much greater support including from men regarding the need for equal status of women. Many rights have been gained.  

The position of women in India seen in the perspective of India’s neighbourhood or globally may not be as stark as it often portrayed in international media. 2021 is the year that we may come out of the pandemic. Challenges for our women have multiplied and yet they are at the forefront of family and societal support as we went through a seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns and their consequences. 

The message from Germaine Greer, one of the founding mothers of the women’s movement in the 70s, is more relevant than ever before. Germaine Greer noted: “One may not reach the dawn, save by the path of the night.”  She added: “Freedom is fragile and must be protected.  To sacrifice it, even as a temporary measure is to betray it.” 

(The writer is a former Indian ambassador. The views are personal) 

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